Santa Fe officials, like their counterparts nationwide, are floating proposals that would to one degree or another shift the philosophy of their police department from a law-and-order hammer to a community support tool.
Discussions are gaining momentum in Santa Fe, with much of the focus on finding different ways to address people who are in the midst of mental health crises. It's not a move to defund or abolish the police—as some cities have considered in response to renewed calls from activists after the May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—but it would mark a change.
The idea: a new "alternative response" unit that would bring together a paramedic, a cop and a social worker to respond to 911 calls with a behavioral health component.
It surfaced during July's budget hearing in response to community calls for police reform. While the proposal would not divert money away from the Santa Fe Police Department, the city added $758,600 to its community services budget in July to fund initiatives such as the new team.
One city councilor says a new team would be "a start" toward safer policing, but wouldn't go far enough. And despite SFPD's history of ending several relatively recent incidents involving people in crisis with gunfire, no officials here are acknowledging the new proposal as a way to avoid those kinds of outcomes.
But they have a roadmap—one they've mentioned several times during calls to launch the alternative response unit: a similar experiment in Colorado Springs.
So, what is the model, launched about 300 miles north in 2014, and how successful has it been?
In six years, the Colorado Springs Community Response Team has reduced the burden on that city's emergency rooms and freed police up to investigate serious crimes, Fire Lt. Andrew Cooper, who supervises the team, tells SFR.
The team grew out of a program designed to address a small number of individuals, most of whom suffer from behavioral and mental health problems, who were responsible for a large percentage of annual 911 calls, Cooper says. This demographic, known as "super utilizers," tax police and fire departments all over the country. (It's a problem in Santa Fe too—Fire Chief Paul Babcock says his department has responded to one particular individual 76 times in six months.)
Colorado Springs contracts with a local mental health care agency to provide a social worker to assess the patient's mental health, de-escalate a crisis, offer a forward-looking plan or refer the patient to a local mental health care hospital. The paramedic addresses any of the patient's physical needs and gives them the required medical clearance to be accepted to a mental health facility, and the police officer deals with any crime that has been committed and provides safety for the team.
The results, according to Cooper: Previously, 98% of people in cases in which a police officer identified behavioral health issues were sent to the emergency room, where they waited hours for an assessment only to be released without further treatment if they did not pose immediate harm to themselves or others.
Now, just 15% of these cases end in the emergency room, he says. In nearly two-thirds of CRT cases, people are treated at the scene, and the rest are sent directly to mental health hospitals instead of the ER.
"We're able to create safety plans for them, get them the resources they need with follow up care and be able to let them stay in their residence, which is the ideal scenario," Cooper explains.
That helps reduce police response times, resources spent and helps people get the appropriate care, Cooper says. The team has grown from one unit to three, with plans for a fourth.
Santa Fe officials believe it can work here, too.
They're proposing a reorganization of city government to bring the Police, Fire and Community Safety departments together under the single umbrella of a new Community Health and Safety Department.
In Santa Fe, says Chief Babcock, police respond to an average behavioral health call with two police officers, a fire truck, a paramedic and an ambulance.
Babcock and Police Chief Andrew Padilla recognize this is not always the best response.
"The appropriate resources aren't going to appropriate call type, and we are not always getting the patient the appropriate care," says Babcock.
He tells SFR 24% of 911 calls fall into categories that could have a behavioral health component.
That ties up a good amount of time for police, Padilla said at a city budget hearing in July. In 2019, he said, the department responded to 8,000 disorderly conduct calls, including people talking to themselves or sleeping in doorways—issues that an alternative response team in Santa Fe would likely address instead.
"That would definitely improve our response times," he said.
The program would complement two others in Santa Fe—MIHO, an opiate response program with the Fire Department, and Thrive (formerly known as LEAD), which allows police to divert people caught committing low-level drug related crimes into treatment instead of into the criminal justice system.
Padilla even acknowledged that of the 23 open positions in his department, perhaps up to 10 in the future could be converted to social worker positions to further the program. But for now, the proposal would not shift staffing or budgetary considerations in the police department.
City Councilwoman Renee Villarreal tells SFR, "It's a start to what we need in our community but because it's only one unit, that's not enough—it's just one police officer, one paramedic, one social worker receiving that training. I think we would need more collaborative units like that throughout our departments."